Cultivating Social Consciousness by Marilyn Schlitz

What does it mean to be part of a greater whole? How does our worldview, or model of reality, impact what we understand about who we are and how we relate to others? And how can we become more aware of all the ways we are part of an interrelated, global community?

Recently my colleagues and I explored these questions in a report titled “Worldview Transformation and the Development of Social Consciousness” for the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Schlitz, Vieten, and Miller; 17, no. 7–8 (2010): 18–36). Based on decades of research on consciousness transformation, IONS researchers have developed a theoretical framework for understanding social consciousness. In this way, we have sought to understand the ways in which people are both conscious and unconscious about the world around them. And, more importantly, we seek to understand the powers and potentials of individual consciousness to move toward collective well-being.

It’s clear that we are social beings from the very beginning of life. Social relations impact every aspect of our being. Of course, there is developmental variability in the extent to which each of us is aware of culture’s impact on us. It takes a level of perceptual acuity, for example, to realize how all those car commercials impact what we drive and how we feel about it.

The complex dynamics of our social identity unfold through five nested levels of social consciousness. These in turn relate to transformations in worldview.

* The first level of social consciousness is what we refer to as embedded. Here consciousness is shaped without our awareness by social, cultural, and biological factors. It’s a kind of presocial consciousness that serves as a baseline for our own development. Social factors interact with our cognitive and biological processes, limiting our ability to know what shapes our inner experiences. Studies of inattentional blindness by psychologists, for instance, illustrate how our human brains are often “hard-wired” to exclude information that does not fit into our current meaning system. We see what we expect to see – and can consistently miss things we are not anticipating or that don’t support our belief system.

* With greater human choice and creativity, we may begin to express our human spirit in the face of on-going social and political influences. This leads to Level Two, which we call self-reflexive social consciousness. Here people gain awareness of how their experiences are conditioned by the social world. This can be accomplished through personal reflection and contemplative practices such as meditation. Scientists and spiritual teachers alike are working together to broaden our awareness of the world and our place in it.

Psychologist and religious historian Louise Sundarararajan emphasizes that it is the capacity for self-reflexivity – the ability to step back and reflect on our thought process – that stimulate shifts in our mental representations. From insight meditation to the confessional in the Catholic tradition, to taking inventory of one’s behavior in the 12-step programs, each practice can help us to become more self-aware. In this process, we can begin to analyze our own biases and remove our perceptual blinders.

* Level Three is what we term engaged social consciousness. At this stage, we are not only aware of the social environment but begin to mobilize our intention to contribute to the greater good. There is a movement from “me” to “we” as our awareness moves us to actively engage in the wellbeing of others and the world. There is also an expansion of perspective-taking, in which we get better at seeing things from another person’s point of view. Scientific data from interpersonal neurobiology suggests that our brains develop through our connections to others. Additional data point to built in drives within us that lead us to search for purpose in our lives, suggesting that our brains are social organs.

* Level Four involves what we call collaborative social consciousness. Gaining greater awareness of ourselves in relation to the social world may lead us to participate in co-creating solutions with others. Here we begin to shape the social environment through collaborative actions. Within education, for example, we find an increasing focus on participatory learning, service learning, and project-based learning – each was developed to enhance the nature of collaborative social consciousness through discourse and conversation. Wisdom Cafes, Open Space Technology, and Bohmian Dialogue Groups offer collaborative explorations and life-affirming actions.

* Level Five is what we call resonant consciousness. At this stage of development people, report a sense of essential interrelatedness with others. They describe a “field” of shared experience and emergence that is felt and expressed in social groups. Mystical states of interconnectedness, deep rapport, unspoken communication, have all been expressed by spiritual teachers, educators, and psychologists alike, as a stage in social consciousness. These notions are further developed by research, such as that conducted at IONS, that speak to measurable links between one person’s intention and another person’s physiological activity, revealing an underlying entanglement between us. Such studies are evocative and provide an empirical basis for connections that lie beyond our physical relations.

Scientists, scholars, and contemplative teachers are finally beginning to work together to explore the ways in which people are conditioned by the biological, social, and physical world in which they are embedded, and in so doing to recognize a broader picture of our collective human potential.

Dr. Schlitz is the CEO and President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, as well as a researcher, author, speaker, and change consultant.

There Is No Such Thing as an Ego by Peter Russell

I don’t have an ego. And neither do you.

This doesn’t mean that you and I don’t get caught up in egocentric thinking and behavior. We do, but we are mistaken in thinking of the ego as some separate individual self, some “thing” in the mind.

When I observe my own mind, I notice there is an ever-present sense of “I-ness.” This has been there all my life and hasn’t changed. The feeling of being “me” is the same feeling I had when I was ten years old. My thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, attitude, character, personality, roles, desires, needs, and beliefs may have changed considerably over the years, but the sense of “I” has not.

I do not find a separate ego, another “self,” that sometimes takes over. What I find instead are various patterns of thinking that condition how I decide and act. At times, I may feel fearful or judgmental, and I may behave in ways that are manipulative or self-protective. I may think that if I could just have things be a particularly way I would be happy. I may feel insecure and want attention from others, seeking to feel important. I may draw a sense of identity from my social status, the roles I play, my character, or my lifestyle. And when this is challenged in some way, I may try to defend and reinforce this constructed sense of identity.

In each case, past experiences and conditioning create beliefs, attitudes, needs, desires, and aversions. These become the lens through which I see my world, affecting how I interpret my experience, the thoughts that arise in my mind, and a whole set of stories about what to say or do, in order to get what I think will make me feel better. The “I” that is interpreting and thinking is the same “I” that is always there, but its attention has become engrossed in one or another “egoic” pattern of thinking, leading to correspondingly egocentric decisions and actions.

What we call the ego is not another separate self so much as a mode of being that can dominate our thinking, decisions, speech, and actions, leading us to behave in ways that are uncaring, self-centered, or manipulative.

Our exploration of ego would be more fruitful if we stopped using the word as a noun, which immediately implies some “thing,” and instead thought of ego as a mental process that can occupy our attention. For this, a verb is a more appropriate part of speech. I am “ego-ing.”

The difference is subtle, but very important. If I see the ego as a separate self, some thing, then it’s easy to fall into the belief – common in many spiritual circles – that I must get rid of my ego, transcend it, or overcome it in some way. But seeing ego as a mental process, a system of thinking that I get caught in, suggests that I need to step out of that mode of thinking and look at the world through a different lens, one less tainted by fear, insecurity, and attachment.

This is a much easier and more effective approach. Rather than berate myself (or my imagined ego) when I notice myself caught up in egoic thinking, I can notice instead what is going on and step back from it. This doesn’t mean I have eliminated that way of thinking – it will surely return. But when it does, I can choose to step out of it again. Transcending the ego thus becomes an ongoing practice rather than a far-off goal. (See also my “Prayer for Peace.”)


Peter Russell’s contemporaries have lauded him as “one of the finest minds of our time“ and an “eco-philosopher extraordinaire. “ He is the bestselling author of ten books (including The Global Brain, Waking up in Time, and, most recently, From Science to God), and his video The Global Brain won international acclaim. His work integrates Eastern and Western understandings of the mind, exploring their relevance to the world today and to humanity’s future.

Peter believes that our critical challenge is to free human thinking from the limited beliefs and attitudes that lie behind so many of our problems—personal, social, and global. His intent is to distill the essential wisdom on human consciousness found in the world’s various spiritual traditions, and to disseminate their teachings on self-liberation in contemporary and compelling ways.

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